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The key to Bangkok’s rise lies in the Chao Phraya River, which courses stealthily through its center, feeding a complex network of canals and locks that, until relatively recently, were the focus of city life. Lying just a few miles from the Gulf of Thailand, the river was a major conduit for trade and the main reason behind its rapid growth. Today, nothing much has changed: Great black barges filled with rice, coal, or sand are towed up and down the river by small yellow tugs; at any time of the day you might spot gray Royal Naval vessels, or Port Authority police, stout wooden sampans, and even blue barges stacked with Pepsi-Cola bottles, all plying these waters.

In the late 18th century, Thailand’s first monarch of the Chakri dynasty, Rama I, moved the capital eastward from Thonburi (a suburb of today’s Bangkok) across the river to the district that became known as Rattanakosin Island, so-called due to the human-made canals that surrounded this entire area. Like medieval moats, these canals (klongs) acted as a defensive barrier. Other canals were soon added, channeling the waters of the Chao Phraya into peripheral communities, feeding fish ponds or rice paddies, and nurturing the city’s many tropical fruit orchards. These waterways fast became the aquatic boulevards of this low-lying, swampy city. Apart from structures built for royalty, ordinary Bangkok residents lived on water, in bamboo raft homes, or on boats. As foreign diplomats, missionaries, and writers traveled to Bangkok, they drew parallels with the Italian city of Venice and renamed it the “Venice of the East.” Not until the early 1800s were non-royal houses built on dry land.

Due to the health hazards posed by these open klongs, and the gradual need for more stable land with the advent of vehicular transport, many of the canals were paved over in the last century. By the late 1970s, most of the city’s paddy fields had disappeared. In fact, much of today’s Bangkok sits on from former marshland. Fears are growing as global warming raises sea levels and the effects of seasonal flooding on the city are becoming more drastic.

For a glimpse of traditional Thai life, schedule a few hours to explore the waterways. You’ll see people using the river to bathe, fish, wash their clothes, and occasionally brush their teeth at the water’s edge (not recommended). Floating kitchens occupy small motorized canoes from which the pilot-cum-chef serves rice and noodles to the occupants on other boats. Ramshackle huts on stilts adorned with 100-year-old fretwork tumble down into klongs; while at low tide, the rib cages of sunken ships appear out of the oozing mud.

Opportunities abound for exploring Bangkok’s small klong networks and river arteries. The most frequently seen boat on the river is the longtail, a needle-shaped craft driven by a raucous outboard engine and covered in a striped awning. These act as river taxis for tourists and locals alike. Private longtails congregate at Maharaj, Chang, and Si Phya public piers and River City. Test your haggling skills and charter a longtail yourself for about 1,000B an hour—be sure to agree on the charge before you get in the boat.

Otherwise, if you head to the riverside exit of Saphan Taksin BTS, there’s also an official kiosk down on the riverfront, with tickets for the hop-on, hop-off Chao Phraya Express (http://chaophrayatouristboat.com). It runs every half-hour, daily from 9:30am to 4pm (tickets 50B for single-journey and 180B day pass), and is a more comfortable option than the (more cramped) longtails or tatty wooden express boats that act as the city’s river taxis.

However you tour the klongs, take time to explore Klong Bangkok Noi and Klong Bangkok Yai. Also stop at the Royal Barge Museum, a wonderful riverside hangar crammed with long, narrow vessels covered in gilt carvings, brought out only to commemorate rare events such as a milestone in the monarch’s reign or the visit of a dignitary. Tour operators offer half-day tours that include a visit to the Royal Barges Museum and cost about 850B per person, including an English-speaking guide: contact Thai River Cruise (www.thairivercruise.com; tel. 02476-5207).

Many visitors are disappointed by the touristy floating market at Damnoen Saduak, about 105km (65 miles) southwest of Bangkok, in Ratchaburi Province, though there’s no denying it’s a photogenic spectacle. A more authentic experience is to head either to the nearby Amphawa Floating Market or upstream along the Chao Phraya to picturesque Ko Kret. Unlike Damnoen Saduak, which is at its best in the early morning so requires a pre-dawn start, the market at Amphawa buzzes between noon and 8pm, though it’s only at weekends.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.